The Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins March 22. It celebrates the month during which Muslims believe Allah revealed the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. The holiday, marked by fasting and prayer, is intended to be a period of abstinence, penance, and spiritual introspection.
However, the holiday has recently become synonymous with Palestinian violence. According to the Biden administration, the month could be a "recipe for disaster in Jerusalem" this year. One American official sees "reason to assume that the violence this year will be worse."
There is a sad irony to this. After years of post-9/11 debates in which Muslims have insisted that theirs is the religion of peace, some American officials now cede that Ramadan is a rallying cry for violence.
The facts, unfortunately, speak for themselves. The lead-up to the 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in 2021 was undeniably connected to Ramadan. It began after Israeli police, amidst security concerns, closed the plaza outside the old city of Jerusalem at the beginning of Ramadan. Nightly clashes erupted in the city, which is holy to all three monotheistic religions. Tempers flared further over the possible eviction of Arab families from homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah (the eviction never occurred). Soon, Hamas began to fire rockets out of Gaza. In the final days of Ramadan, the violence spiraled into all-out war.
Hamas lost that war, as it always does. After that, the group undertook a strategic decision, with urging from Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. The new strategy entails exporting violence to the West Bank—an area Hamas aspires to control—rather than suffering defeats on its home turf.
Palestinian attacks against Israel began to tick up in the latter half of 2021. The violence spilled over into 2022, with another surge during Ramadan. The holiday was preceded by a week of terror that left 11 dead. One terrorist rammed his car into a cyclist and proceeded to stab five others in the desert city of Beersheva. Gunmen shot two Israeli police officers dead in Hadera, and five civilians were shot and killed in the city of Bnei Brak.
When Ramadan began, a terror attack rocked Tel Aviv. Senior leaders from Palestinian terrorist groups encouraged their followers to "make all friction points with the enemy clash points" and warned, "Israel is preparing to commit a new crime against Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan." Clashes soon erupted on the Temple Mount. Palestinian agitators threw stones and shot fireworks at Israeli security personnel who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. One night witnessed over 400 arrests with more than 150 people injured.
Interestingly, while the Ramadan narrative continues to dominate headlines, it is only a part of the story. The number of violent attacks by Palestinians have been growing steadily for at least a year. Foundation for Defense of Democracies looked at the data and found that no less than 1,300 attacks have been carried out by Palestinians against Israelis in the disputed West Bank and in Israel since March of last year. Ramadan may see some increases, but the broader trends are even more disconcerting. In other words, as scholar Hillel Frisch correctly observes, Palestinian terrorists have been alarmingly active during the 11 other months of the year.
Proponents of the Palestinian cause don't acknowledge this trend. Heading into Ramadan, they are wielding the holiday to justify the violence. Leading the charge, not surprisingly, is the Islamic Republic of Iran. The regime has declared the last Friday of Ramadan to be Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day, and wields it to incite violence against Israel. On Al-Quds Day in 2021, the regime's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei exhorted Palestinians to "continue their legitimate, morally correct fight" against Israel, applauded the use of "precision missiles," and glorified "martyrs" from terror groups.
Iran is hardly alone. Leader of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, Khaled Meshal, recently warned that, "things are going to escalate in Ramadan, and we are on the verge of hot days..."
Even historically moderate countries like Jordan have also peddled this narrative. One Jordanian official recently warned of a "very difficult dynamic on the ground with the escalation happening ahead of Ramadan..." In fact, Jordanian rhetoric in recent years has bordered on vitriolic.
De-escalation is now needed. At Washington's behest, Jerusalem has taken steps to strengthen the Palestinian economy and cool tensions. These include regulating tolls at border crossings, lowering taxes on fuel, and lifting taxes on other imports. Egypt, meanwhile, is also working to diffuse tensions. In February, Cairo held talks with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to quell the violence.
The West now has a role to play. Washington, in particular, must make its voice heard. Other regional actors must step up, too. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan are all countries that enjoy normalized relations with Israel. Their key message should be simple: Ramadan is not a time for violence.
Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Natalie Ecanow is a research analyst focusing on the Middle East.